Who Rules America? Domhoff’s Method Makes that Difficult to Answer

G. William Domhoff finds problems with conspiracy theory. His essay, “There Are No Conspiracies,” is a harebrained attempt at shutting down critical thinking about how history happens. He lists five objections, none of which work.

First, conspiracy theory “assumes that a small handful of wealthy and highly educated people somehow develop an extreme psychological desire for power that leads them to do things that don’t fit with the roles they seem to have. For example, that rich capitalists are no longer out to make a profit, but to create a one-world government.” As if making profit and controlling government are mutually exclusive goals – or don’t depend on one another.

Capitalists are out to make a profit. The biggest capitalists with the most power know that they can increase their profits by controlling the global political and economic machinery. The transnational capitalist class actively seeks to bring all political power and economic activities under its control. Control over one requires control over the other. Will capitalists succeed? They largely already have. For sure, they are trying. It’s naive to believe that the most powerful groups in the world aren’t trying to shape world history towards their ends and that they are loath to do so secretly.

Domhoff scoffs at the fear that “elected officials are trying to get the constitution suspended so they can assume dictatorial powers.” This is a ridiculous claim, he writes, because it never happens. Really? It never happens? The terrible fact that political rule sometimes comes to power through conspiracy recommends conspiracy theory as a useful (albeit not the only useful) framework for analyzing history.

Domhoff writes, “Since these claims have proved wrong dozens of times by now, it makes more sense to assume that leaders act for their usual reasons, such as profit-seeking motives and institutionalized roles as elected officials.” False dilemma. It is not one or the other thing. It’s all these things. To arbitrarily close off one of the avenues for understanding history is ideology not social science.

“Second, the conspiratorial view assumes that the behind-the-scenes leaders are extremely clever and knowledgeable, whereas social science and historical research shows that leaders often make shortsighted or mistaken decisions due to the limits placed on their thinking by their social backgrounds and institutional roles.”

Criminals get busted for conspiracy all the time because they make shortsighted or mistaken decisions. Conspiracies often don’t work. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t conspiracies. Domhoff himself acknowledges conspiracy in his example of why conspiracies often don’t work: “the failure of the CIA at the Bay of Pigs during the Kennedy Administration.” The Bay of Pigs was a conspiracy that failed. Here a man is denying the existence of conspiracies while documenting one.

“Third, the conspiratorial view places power in the hands of only a few dozen or so people, often guided by one strong leader….” Most conspiracies are small and involve even fewer than a few dozen people. And, yes, very often, there is a mastermind, a ring leader. Bigger conspiracies involve more people. Conspiracies can be vast, involving several hundred people. These are, frankly, mundane facts about conspiracies.

“Fourth, the conspiratorial view often assumes that clever experts (‘pointy-headed intellectuals’) with bizarre and grandiose ideas have manipulated the thinking of their hapless bosses.” He gives no examples and I have not heard anybody who theorizes “conspiracists” make this claim. Then he writes that “studies of policy-making suggest that experts work within the context of the values and goals set out by the leaders, and that they are ignored or replaced if they step outside the consensus.” Right. There are leaders who pull the strings and when people step out of line they are marginalized or eliminated. This does not exclude conspiracy.

“Finally, the conspiratorial view assumes that illegal plans to change the government or assassinate people can be kept secret for long periods of time, but all evidence shows that secret groups or plans in the United States are uncovered by civil liberties groups, infiltrated by reporters or government officials, and written about in the press.” Which means that we know there are conspiracies.

Does Domhoff’s argument: conspiracies are not real because they are exposed by those who suspect there are conspiracies. Certainly Domhoff won’t be exposing any conspiracies: he can’t see what’s in front of him: “Even secrets about wars and CIA operations – Vietnam, the Contras, the rationales for Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 – are soon exposed for everyone to see.” Right. Those were conspiracies.

“Because all their underlying assumptions are discredited by historical events and media exposures, no conspiracy theory is credible on any issue.” He admits that we have exposed numerous conspiracies, yet no conspiracy theory is credible on any issue. The argument contradicts itself.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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